Cell phones. Televisions. Computers. Cars. Tools so commonplace in the industrialized world, that upgrading them regularly is practically standard. But what happens when old electronics are no longer in use? How are they discarded and where do they end up? And how do they affect the lives of people all around the world?
The answers may lie in Agbogbloshie, a toxic dump outside Ghana’s capital where, every day, thousands of tons of electronic waste arrive in containers from the West.
In A. Bloshie, as it is called by the locals, the streets are plastered with electronic scrap, the soil is contaminated with chemicals and poisonous smoke hangs in the air. But the damage here extends well beyond the environment, making this ground zero for a billion dollar industry: the dirty business of illegal scrap.
When trash becomes contraband, sustainability can take a backseat to survival; the search for treasure – amidst the heaps of someone else’s trash – becoming a dangerous livelihood.
This is an investigation into how old electronics, discarded in some of the world’s richest countries, end up unrecycled. It’s the story of waste harming the environment, disrupting economies and damaging the health of communities far away from its discard point. It’s the story of the trail of pollution – and corruption – that is left when trash is illicit, and business is dirty.
DIRTY BUSINESS | Big StoryThis is an investigation into how old electronics, discarded in some of the world’s richest countries, end up unrecycled. It’s the story of the trail of pollution – and corruption – that is left when trash is illicit, and business is dirty.
Daniel Baar and Matthew Hambsch
What attracted you to the story of A. Bloshie?
Daniel Baar (Idea and Storyline): Living in a western metropolitan city means things very often feel like they “just happen” without us really noticing them. In our case it was trash, like old fridges or TVs, that were left sitting in front of apartment buildings everywhere in Berlin. In most cases, this trash would disappear within a couple of days. But it was not the municipal garbage collectors who would take it. Instead, it seemed to be random people picking it up off the street. Because most of the old TVs and fridges that had been discarded seemed to not be working, we became curious to know where they were being taken.
Matthew Hambsch (Director on Set): You know, this garbage is subject to strict guidelines in Europe, where it is referred to as hazardous waste. Usually, you have to pay a high fee to dispose it. So our question was: who would voluntary take this obvious useless waste? And what happens to it?
Daniel: We decided to put a GPS tracker inside a TV and a fridge to see where they went. The result was more than surprising. We followed the tracker on a digital map and found out that it was taken out of the country. The GPS signal finally showed up in Ghana, a small country in West Africa.
Why was it important to tell this story?
Matthew: First of all, we were curious. But digging deeper, we realized there is a huge market in Africa for electric waste from Europe and the United States. It turned out that the transport of the goods was highly professionally organized. But the backers put a lot of emphasis on the official side to make sure nobody knows this is happening. Because the transport export of hazardous waste is strictly regulated. It was quite tough to find people who were willing to talk about this in detail with us. Not only because a big part of the old electronic goods end up as waste in African slums. But because there is also a lot of child labor in it.
Daniel: Because what they do is burn fridges and TVs that are not working anymore to pick out metal like copper, which they then sell back to western countries. The damage to the health of the people who burn this waste, and to the environment, is enormous. And the business behind it is just cruel. Governments of western countries know about it, but mostly ignore the illegal export of hazardous waste into the developing world. Why? Because it allows them to easily get rid of the waste, and even profit from the process in the end. You know, it’s kids from the age of five that we found working in the dumps. They earn just about USD $1 per day while ruining their health and shortening their lifespan, all because of our waste. For us, this was simply unbelievable.
What should we know about your filmmaking process?
Daniel: We wanted to show the contrast between the western society we live in, and how many others live. We have very high standards for the process of recycling and disposing waste. In Africa, it is the total opposite of that and at the same time they pay the price for our standard. Would you expect that a child is burning the fridge you placed in front of your house, ruining his or her health, and earning just a few cents for it? I think nobody wants this.
Did you make any unexpected discoveries while shooting?
Matthew: One day our host brought us deep into the slum. There we met Fiffy - an 11-year-old boy who had to take care of his whole family because his father was absent for some reason. He told us about his dreams, while at the same time, reality was just screaming into our face. The shack Fiffiy shared with his five siblings and his mother was just about seven square meters large, no furniture, no covers, with rain dripping through a leaking tin roof. Fiffy had to take care of them all, on USD $1 per day. Seeing that, just blew me away.
What do you hope your documentary will achieve?
Daniel: we hope this documentary will achieve awareness of what our lifestyle means to humans on the other side of the coin. To be honest, we don’t seem to give a [expletive] where our waste goes in the end. But it affects so many lives. Instead, we should work on alternatives.
Matthew: You know, a part of the old fridges and TVs still work. Or people repair them to make them work. What impressed me was that a merchant of these goods told us that they don’t have any alternative to repair, so they burn and buy our waste, as they could never afford a new fridge or TV. Why? Because they don’t have a single production line in Ghana, and probably in many African countries. So all they can do is re-use our waste. If we want to be correct with other people that we share this planet with, we have to change our way of thinking. Why do we have to profit from the poorest ? It would be so easy to support them, so they can set up simple production lines themselves. Instead we pay little amounts - if we even do so at all - to support them on short notice with food. But what they need is a real chance. They need education and a long-term concept, as our society profits so much off these countries and it would cost us so much less to support them. I cannot understand, what we are waiting for.
UNEP: THE COST OF ILLEGALLY TRADED AND DUMPED E-WASTE
Up to 90 percent of the world's electronic waste, worth nearly US $19 billion, is illegally traded or dumped each year, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
Each year, the electronic industry generates up to 41 million tons of e-waste, and forecasts say that figure may reach 50 million tons in the coming years.
MAPPING E-WASTE WORLDWIDE
The interactive map from STEP provides comparable, country-level data on the amount of electrical and electronic equipment put on the market and the resulting amount of e-waste generated in most countries around the world.
MORE FROM CGTN: CHINA’S BAN ON FOREIGN GARBAGE:
In early 2018, China placed restrictions on the imports of 24 different kinds of solid waste, as the country also had an illegal waste problem. The move will by the world’s largest importer and recycler of plastic, paper and scrap metal, is likely to disrupt the global recycling market, forcing other governments to re-direct its garbage.
CHINA ANNOUNCES IMPORT BAN ON 24 TYPES OF SOLID WASTE - China 24
EUROPE SCRAMBLING AS CHINA BANS FOREIGN WASTE-PLASTIC IMPORTS - Global Business